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When Deepa Mehta first announced the celluloid adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, everyone asked her who would play Saleem Sinai, the primary character in the film. Names such as Ranbir Kapoor, Imran Khan and Shahid Kapoor did the rounds for a while. But Mehta sprung a surprise by casting what can be termed an unconventional choice for a hero — Satya Bhabha. An American actor of Indian origin, Bhabha was, until then, best known for his portrayal of Matthew Patel in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010). Here, Mehta had thrust the burden of an entire film on his shoulders with the character of Saleem, which is probably one of the most unique in the world of subcontinental literature.
Bhabha seemed only too content to carry it further, and is eagerly awaiting the Indian audience's verdict as the film hits the theatres on February 1. "There is truth, honesty and positivity to Saleem that really inspired me. I felt there were aspects of my own personality that I wanted to explore through the character. He faces such incredible obstacles and still emerges hopeful and positive for the next day," says the actor.
Bhabha first met Mehta in Toronto (Canada) through a common friend. The first two meetings were spent talking and getting to know each other, and it was during their third meeting that they eventually discussed the role. "Months later, I was told I would be playing the part," he says. It also helped that Bhabha knew the novel extensively and was familiar with Mehta's style of filmmaking because he had seen most of her films.
Born in London and having studied theatre at the Yale University, Bhabha was always inclined towards creative arts. "I have always dreamed of being an actor for as long as I can remember," he says. His grandmother, who lives in Mumbai, was passionate about amateur dramatics and instilled in him great love for theatre when he was younger. "We would go to many musicals and plays when she would visit me in London and she introduced me to my great hero, Fred Astaire. He was my real inspiration to pursue this as a career, " he states.
Bhabha's family was supportive of his career choice even though the young actor is the son of a prominent academician in literature, Homi K Bhabha. However, like most Indian actors in the West, he had to await his turn for the big break. His perseverance finally paid off when he was offered Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. "It introduced me to many professional contacts and taught me my first few lessons in filmmaking," he recalls. Midnight's Children soon followed, and this time, he had to stand up to the expectations of an entire nation, playing a character so revered from a book that is cherished by millions.
Not the one to let go of this opportunity, Bhabha had chalked out a special schedule to prepare for his role. "I prepared extensively by reading about the history of India, watching many films and studying Hindi, as well as in a more spiritual or esoteric fashion," he explains. Bhabha's great challenge came with playing the Bombay boy, a city he had visited only on vacations. So, exploring Saleem's — and at times Rushdie's — Bombay, was extremely exciting; it revealed a different city to him. "The experience of travelling around the city, driving a scooter and travelling in the trains changed me forever," he states.
While the actor is busy waiting for his journey to shape up further, he has completed directing his first short film and is in the process of developing a TV show as both writer and director.